Recalling 'Books in Dark Times'

Open book on table, bookshelves in backgroundPhoto/iStock
When John Plotz and Elizabeth Ferry created the podcast "Recall this Book," they imagined the conversations would always be together, live in a studio.

"We really did not want to do any kind of video interface at all. We wanted to be able to look one another in the eye at all times," Ferry said. "We were committed to in-person interaction."

Each episode involves a conversation with a guest that focuses on books that shed light on a contemporary issue or event.  Since 2018, Ferry, an associate professor of anthropology and Plotz, the Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities, have conducted dozens of interviews, and before March of 2020, the tapings were always in person, in the sound studio in the SIMS lab at Brandeis. That had to change pretty quickly.
John Plotz

John Plotz

The podcast is now being produced remotely, via Zoom, and the episodes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have shared a common theme: “Books in Dark Times.”

"We often go back to our personal libraries and our past and look at the books that might bear on that moment in a new way," Plotz said. "Now, we're actually trapped in our own libraries. And at certain points, I would just turn to the bookshelf behind me and be like, I don't know, Joseph Conrad, what about Joseph Conrad? And that could set off a whole conversation."

During the dark times-themed episodes, they've had returning guests for the first time, like Brandeis professor Stephen MacCaulay.

"I think it's actually been really good for the podcast because it gave us a sense of what you could gain by continuing conversations with the same people," Plotz said. "With Steve, the specific topic was the comic novel the first time we talked, and that was really an escapism topic if ever there was one. Steve knows how to talk about the comfort of escape, and the second time around, he just managed to go off in a different direction."

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry

“Recall” is continuing the Books in Dark Times series, but it’s also now branching out with another topical series that will explore global policing.

Students have played a key role in producing the podcast, and that has continued in recent months. As the sound editor for the show, Claire Ogden ’21 edits and mixes the sound from the remote conversations, and there's a grant program connected to the podcast for doctoral students looking at career options outside of academia.

"We're hoping that it becomes a bit of a pathway for people who get involved with audio engineering or podcasting, to ask, how might this be fitting into my future?" Plotz said.

While the show has adjusted to the circumstances, some things can't be replicated remotely.

"We have had a monthly happy hour for people involved in the podcast, and I miss that so viscerally," Plotz said. "It gave me so many ideas and so much inspiration. And we have not been able to do that. It'll be good to get back to that, whenever that may be."

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research, Student Life

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